Battle of Saragarhi

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Coordinates: 33°33′N 70°56′E / 33.550°N 70.933°E / 33.550; 70.933

Battle of Saragarhi
Part of Tirah Campaign War
Date 12 September 1897
Location Tirah, North-West Frontier Province, British India (modern day Pakistan)
Result Afghan Pashtun military victory; British Indian strategic victory
British India Pashtuns (Afghans)
Commanders and leaders
Havildar Ishar Singh   Commander in chief/GeneralGul Badshah
Units involved
36th Sikhs of British Indian Army Afridis and Orakzais
21[1] 10000[2][3]
Casualties and losses
21 killed (100%)[1] 180 killed (Afghan claim)[4]
~450 killed[5] (British Indian estimates)*
Many wounded[6] (number unknown)
* 600 Afghan bodies were found at the battlefield. Some of these were killed by the artillery fire from the British Indian relief party that recaptured the fort.[7][8]
The map of the battle site

The Battle of Saragarhi was fought before the Tirah Campaign on 12 September 1897 between British Indian Army and Afghan Orakzai tribesmen. It occurred in the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan).

The British Indian contingent comprised 21 Sikhs of the 36th Sikhs (now the 4th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment), who were stationed at an army post attacked by around 10,000 Afghans. The Sikhs, led by Havildar Ishar Singh, chose to fight to the death, in what is considered by some military historians as one of history's great last-stands.[9] The post was recaptured two days later by another British Indian contingent.

Sikh military personnel commemorate the battle every year on 12 September, as Saragarhi Day.[10]


Saragarhi was a small village in the border district of Kohat, situated on the Samana Range, in present-day Pakistan. On 20 April 1894, the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Army was created, under the command of Colonel J. Cook.[11] In August 1897, five companies of the 36th Sikhs under Lt. Col. John Haughton, were sent to the North West Frontier Province (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), stationed at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar and Saragarhi.

The British had partially succeeded in getting control of this volatile area, however tribal Pashtuns attacked British personnel from time to time. Thus a series of forts, originally built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Ruler of the Sikh Empire, were consolidated. Two of the forts were Fort Lockhart, (on the Samana Range of the Hindu Kush mountains), and Fort Gulistan (Sulaiman Range), situated a few miles apart. Due to the forts not being visible to each other, Saragarhi was created midway, as a heliographic communication post. The Saragarhi post, situated on a rocky ridge, consisted of a small block house with loop-holed ramparts and a signalling tower.

A general uprising by the Afghans began there in 1897, and between 27 August - 11 September, many vigorous efforts by Pashtuns to capture the forts were thwarted by 36th Sikh regiment. In 1897, insurgent and inimical activities had increased, and on 3 and 9 September Afridi tribes, with allegiance to Afghans, attacked Fort Gulistan. Both the attacks were repulsed, and a relief column from Fort Lockhart, on its return trip, reinforced the signalling detachment positioned at Saragarhi, increasing its strength to one Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) and twenty troops of Other Ranks (ORs).

On 12 September 1897, 10,000 Pashtuns attacked the signalling post at Saragarhi, so that communication would be lost between the two forts.

The Battle

Members of the 11th Sikh Regiment in 1860

Details of the Battle of Saragarhi are considered fairly accurate, due to Gurmukh Singh signalling events to Fort Lockhart by heliograph[12] as they occurred.[11]

  • Around 9:00am, around 10,000 Afghans reach the signaling post at Saragarhi.
  • Sardar Gurmukh Singh signals to Col. Haughton, situated in Fort Lockhart, that they are under attack.
  • Colonel Haughton states he cannot send immediate help to Saragarhi.
  • The soldiers decide to fight to the last to prevent the enemy from reaching the forts.
  • Bhagwan Singh becomes the first injured and Lal Singh is seriously wounded.
  • Soldiers Lal Singh and Jiwa Singh reportedly carry the dead body of Bhagwan Singh back to the inner layer of the post.
  • The enemy breaks a portion of the wall of the picket.
  • Colonel Haughton signals that he has estimated between 10,000 and 14,000 Pashtuns attacking Saragarhi.
  • The leaders of the Afghan forces reportedly make promises to the soldiers to entice them to surrender.
  • Reportedly two determined attempts are made to rush open the gate, but are unsuccessful.
  • Later, the wall is breached.
  • Thereafter, some of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting occurs.
  • In an act of outstanding bravery, Ishar Singh orders his men to fall back into the inner layer, whilst he remains to fight. However, this is breached and all but one of the defending soldiers are killed, along with many of the Pashtuns.
  • Gurmukh Singh, who communicated the battle with Col. Haughton, was the last Sikh defender. He is stated to have killed 20 Afghans, the Pashtuns having to set fire to the post to kill him. As he was dying he was said to have yelled repeatedly the Sikh battle-cry "Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal" (Shout Aloud in Ecstasy! True is the Great Timeless One). "Akal," meaning Immortal, beyond death, the Supreme Creator God unbound by time and non-temporal.

Having destroyed Saragarhi, the Afghans turned their attention to Fort Gulistan, but they had been delayed too long, and reinforcements arrived there in the night of 13–14 September, before the fort could be conquered.[1] The Pashtuns later admitted that they had lost about 180 killed[4] and many more wounded[6] during the engagement against the 21 Sikh soldiers, but some 600 bodies[8] are said to have been seen around the ruined post when the relief party arrived (however, the fort had been retaken, on 14 September, by the use of intensive artillery fire,[7] which may have caused many casualties). The total casualties in the entire campaign, including the Battle of Saragarhi, numbered at around 4,800.

Commemorative tablet

The inscription of a commemorative tablet reads:

Order of Merit

All the 21 Sikh non-commissioned officers and soldiers of other ranks who laid down their lives in the Battle of Saragarhi were from Ferozepur district in Punjab(India) and were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award of that time, which an Indian soldier could receive by the hands of the British crown, the corresponding gallantry award being Victoria Cross. This award is equivalent to today's Param Vir Chakra awarded by the President of India.

The names of the 21 recipients of the gallantry award are:[13]

  1. Havildar Ishar Singh (regimental number 165)
  2. Naik Lal Singh (332)
  3. Naik Chanda Singh (546)
  4. Lance Naik Sundar Singh (1321)
  5. Lance Naik Ram Singh (287)
  6. Lance Naik Uttar Singh (492)
  7. Lance Naik Sahib Singh (182)
  8. Sepoy Hira Singh (359)
  9. Sepoy Daya Singh (687)
  10. Sepoy Jivan Singh (760)
  11. Sepoy Bhola Singh (791)
  12. Sepoy Narayan Singh (834)
  13. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (814)
  14. Sepoy Jivan Singh (871)
  15. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (1733)
  16. Sepoy Ram Singh (163)
  17. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1257)
  18. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1265)
  19. Sepoy Buta Singh (1556)
  20. Sepoy Jivan Singh (1651)
  21. Sepoy Nand Singh (1221)

Remembrance and legacy

The epic poem "Khalsa Bahadur" is in memory of the Sikhs who died at Sargarhi.[14]

The battle has become iconic of eastern military civilization, British empire military history and Sikh history.[15] The modern Sikh Regiment continues to celebrate the day of the Battle of Saragarhi each 12 September as the Regimental Battle Honours Day. To commemorate the men the British built two Saragarhi Gurudwaras: one in Amritsar very close to the main entrance of the Golden Temple, and another in Ferozepur Cantonment, which was the district that most of the men hailed from.

In Indian schools

The Indian military, in particular the Indian Army have been pushing for the battle to be taught in India's schools. They want it taught due to the heroism shown by the Indian soldiers to act as inspiration for young children – in the field of bravery. There were articles like these, printed in the Punjab's longest-established newspaper, The Tribune in 1999: "the military action at Saragarhi is taught to students the world over and particularly to students in France."[16] Although there seems to be no evidence for this claim (it is not, for example, on France's national school curriculum[17]) the news was enough to provoke political debate, and the battle has been taught in schools in the Punjab since 2000:

Saragarhi Day

Saragarhi Day
Official name Saragarhi Day
Observed by India[3] (also observed by Sikhs worldwide)
Type national & international
Significance Honors the 21 military Sikh soldiers who died at the Battle of Saragarhi
Observances Parades, school history projects, government buildings
Date 12 September (or nearest weekday)
Related to Remembrance Day

Saragarhi Day, is a Sikh military commemoration day celebrated on 12 September every year to commemorate The Battle of Saragarhi.[3] Sikh military personnel and Sikh non-military people commemorate the battle around the world every year on 12 September. All units of the Sikh Regiment celebrate Saragarhi Day every year as the Regimental Battle Honours Day.

Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara (temple) was built in memory of the 21 Sikh soldiers that fought at The Battle of Saragarhi.[19]

Saragarhi Day in the UK

Saragarhi was commemorated by the British Armed Forces in the UK for the first time at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in November 2013.

Saragarhi Day was marked on the battle honour day on 12 September 2014 at Sandhurst.

Saragarhi Challenge Cup

The British and Indian armies’ polo teams commemorated the battle in 2010, by holding the Saragarhi Challenge and raising money for the British Asian Trust. The competition was only held once again in 2011.[9]

Saragarhi and Thermopylae

The battle has frequently been compared to the Battle of Thermopylae,[15] where a small Greek force faced a large Persian army of Xerxes (480 BC).

The comparison is made because of the overwhelming odds faced by a tiny defending force in each case, and the defenders' brave stand to their deaths, as well as the extremely disproportionate number of fatalities caused to the attacking force.

It is important[clarification needed] to note that during the Battle of Saragarhi, the British did not manage to get a relief unit there until after the 21 had fought to their deaths. At Thermopylae, the 300 Spartans and their allies also stayed after their lines had been outflanked, to fight to their deaths.

Further reading

  • Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle by Jay Singh-Sohal, Birmingham: Dot Hyphen Publishers, 2013 (ISBN 978-0957054073)
  • Saragarhi Battalion: Ashes to Glory by Kanwaljit Singh and H.S. Ahluwalia, New Delhi : Lancer International, 1987 (ISBN 81-7062-022-8)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 The London Gazette: no. 26937. p. 863. 11 February 1898. Retrieved 10 November 2008.
  2. The Tribune Online Edition (2007-04-15). "Of blood red in olive green". The Tribune. Retrieved 2007-11-01.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Tribune News Service (2005-09-14). "Battle of Saragarhi remembered". The Tribune. Retrieved 2007-11-05.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Maj. Gen. Jaswant Singh Letter to H.M. Queen Elizabeth II Archived 12 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine Institute of Sikh Studies (1999) - accessed 2008-03-30
  5. Himmat. R.M. Lala. 1971. p. 16. Retrieved 2012-06-16. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Subramanian, L.M. (2006). Defending Saragarhi, 12 September 1897, Bharat Rakshak. Accessed 21 April 2016.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "The Frontier War," Daily News, London (16 Sep 1897)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Sharma, Gautam Valour and Sacrifice: Famous Regiments of the Indian Army, India, Allied Publishers (1990) ISBN 81-7023-140-X, via Google Books - accessed 2008-01-25
  9. 9.0 9.1 BBC News (2011-12-05). "India polo match honours Sikhs' 1897 Saragarhi battle". BBC News. Retrieved 2012-07-19.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  10. The 21 Sikhs of Saragarhi
  11. 11.0 11.1 Pall, S.J.S. "The story of Valiant Sikhs", Amritsar, B. Chattar Singh (2004) page 98
  12. "DEFENCE OF SARAGARHI POST.". Camperdown Chronicle (Vic. : 1877 - 1954). Vic.: National Library of Australia. 5 December 1907. p. 6. Retrieved 1 September 2014. 
  13. Regimental numbers from photo of Saragarhi memorial plaque Archived 11 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  14. Singh, Gurdev (1995). Harbans Singh, ed. The Encyclopedia of Sikhism (2nd ed.). Patiala: Punjabi University, Patiala. [dead link]
  15. 15.0 15.1 Singh, Kanwaljit & Ahluwalia, H.S. Saragarhi Battalion: Ashes to Glory, India, Lancer International (1987) ISBN 81-7062-022-8
  16. Robin Gupta An epic performance: A slice of history Chandigarh, The Tribune (20 March 1999) - accessed 2008-04-19
  17. French Education Ministry website - accessed 2008-04-19
  18. Vijay Mohan (2000-04-05). "Recounting battle of Saragarhi". The Tribune. Retrieved 2007-11-01.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  19. Sharma, Dinesh K.The legend of Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara, Times of India (11 September 2003) - accessed 2008-01-25

External links